I have a friend who has always been unusually sensitive to color. We once went to a museum show that was vibrantly colorful. Upon entering the gallery, my friend looked briefly euphoric and disoriented; she then inhaled raggedly and quickly turned around to exit the gallery. Outside, she told me that sometimes color slams her psyche – it wasn’t a bad thing, but it could literally take her breath away. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, we went in and out of the show so that she could titrate the experience of what seemed to be a mixture of ecstasy and excess. She loved the show. The colors were amazing. She simply needed to absorb them a little more slowly.
At the time, I was baffled by this experience – I’ve certainly never forgotten it. Her experience was clearly genuine. But it was so alien to my own relationship with color that I could not fathom what it must be like to “see” color in that way, to live in a world where color was so much a part of one’s physical experience.
Many years later, the stable reality upon which I had built my professional life and identity crumbled. In addition to the obliteration of my work life, I was physically sick and emotionally battered. Most profoundly, this all became manifest in the loss of my inner voice. Only when my voice went silent did I realize that I had always maintained a running narrative that buoyed me in life. This narrative wasn’t particularly plot driven. In fact, it was more a habit I had developed in childhood to make a story out of moments that struck me throughout the day. So, for example, the sun filtering through leaves on a spring day could transport me to a “story” of happiness that gathered together childhood fragments into a distilled narrative completeness that was as much sensory and it was verbal. Over the course of my life, I had repeated certain narrative fragments to myself so many times that they were like actual places I could visit: warm spaces that were fully furnished and well-lit. When this world went silent, when these warm narrative spaces were shut off from me, I felt untethered and hollow.
It was in that silent place that I discovered color. Sitting in my study placing colored glass on old windows began as an activity to distract me from the hollow feeling that haunted me – like doing crossword puzzles. Hours would pass as I worked a piece and I was free from anxiety and the need to have a clear purpose. Eventually, I had moments when I found myself beaming with delight, truly transported by color and shape to a kind of happiness that was entirely separate from language and narrative. I could not have told you much about what elevated me to this new joy – it was visual. I began to see shapes and color at night before I fell asleep. I could listen to music and color would vibrate and shift in front of my eyes as if dancing to the music. I found myself aware of a way of seeing and being in the world that I had never known – something akin to my friend’s experience of color in the museum so many years before. My mind expands. The way that color visits me in quiet times is healing and sustaining. It helps me to be patient so that I might understand what has had happened to me.